Often I find flesh-and-blood people, with a precious few exceptions, to be far inferior to fictional ones. It’s as if they try to be one-dimensional. If only literal people put as much effort into character development as a good writer puts into developing a literary character….
I’ve given this post the title “Spiral” because of a phenomenon I’ve noticed in this area. An alternate title might be “The Incredible Shrinking Soul.” You’ve seen it also, if you’ve spent any time observing the people you meet on a regular basis. Possibly you might have seen it in yourself at some point, although it has been my experience that it’s a good deal easier to notice it in others than it is to catch it at work in yourself.
The soul is not static. I find it difficult to describe what I mean, because different people use so many different terms for what I grew up calling ‘the soul.’ This thing—soul, psyche, consciousness, heart, animating principle—is what makes you an individual. It grows with experience, but it can also shrink. Of late, it seems that I’ve been meeting more and more people whose lives follow a downward spiral, compacting the soul, hardening it into an unfeeling knot. You know when you meet someone whose soul is constricted. You can tell at first by that indefinite sense of self-absorption they emit. They’ve turned inward. To offer you a mild example: several days ago, I went to the break room at work for my lunch. When I arrived, the microwave was not in use, so I put my soup in for two minutes. I sat down to wait, and a few seconds later a coworker entered. She walked to the microwave with her meal and opened the door. A moment later, she said, “Oh. Someone’s lunch is in here.” The words themselves, put down in black and white, don’t convey the sense of almost childlike surprise in her voice as she realized that the microwave wasn’t just ready and waiting for her arrival. Now, I know this woman reasonably well—well enough, anyway, to know that she has a very challenging job that demands a lot from her. It’s more than probable that her mind was on some incident from earlier, so she was running more or less on autopilot. She didn’t mean to get in anyone’s way or to put herself forward.
That was a small, innocuous example. The trouble is, the spiral begins as something small and innocuous. It begins in such a way that the person involved can claim a good excuse. Sometimes a heavyweight stressor bears down, or a danger of some sort looms. One has defense mechanisms for just such an occasion; defenses are by nature constricting, to limit the amount of damage inflicted on the psyche. The trouble comes when defenses become habits. I’ve met a good many people who reach a point where they view every inconvenience as a personal affront. They treat others aggressively so as not to surrender the prerogative of taking the offensive. They complain about everything, because they come to view their problems as infinitely greater than anything their neighbor might suffer. These are the people who complain loudest about having to stand in line. These are the people who verbally abuse store clerks and waiters for not giving them exactly what they want, exactly when they want it. Meanwhile, as their focus tunes in increasingly on themselves, their souls shrivel and die by increments.
I’m terrified of becoming one of these people. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a people-person. To me, the majority of people are abrasive. I end most days feeling as if I’ve spent the hours wrapped in sandpaper. I want to like people. I used to expect that I would like people. Today I heard an old song from my first year of college. Nostalgia isn’t the word for it. I nearly grieved the person I had been, the one who still believed that the world was peopled by intelligent, honorable folk who cared for others. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that any longer. I’ve met too many people out only for what they can get—generally the same people who believe themselves decent, upstanding citizens no worse than the next person. That’s awfully depressing for someone who actually believes in ideals like character, integrity, and charity (in the old-fashioned sense of the word).
And then I realize that, by thinking this way, I am turning into one of those people sliding down the spiral. I’m defending myself. I’m shrinking within myself. Among the many problems one invites by allowing the soul to shrink, the one that really tips me over the edge is this: it really kills my creativity. The smaller I get, the smaller my stories become. Part of the reason I gravitate toward speculative fiction is the grand potential of the genre. At its best, it can involve sweeping adventures and yet still keep the intimacy of a character study. “Write what you know” is an axiom beaten to the point of becoming a cliché, but it applies to the development of your characters as much as to the general subject matter of your work. If I don’t work on my own character, what have I to give to the people I create? I don’t want to get smaller and smaller.
I’ve adopted a strategy for combating the spiral. When I’m irritable or angry, for instance, I try to find ways to make other people smile. Comedy is a wonderful antidote to take when you find yourself taking yourself too seriously. Whatever the means, I’ll do what I can to allow my soul to expand, because “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls”(Hebrews 10:39, ESV).